Barack Obama challenged the nation Thursday to honor the memory of John Lewis by picking up the fight for his signature issue, voting rights, during a eulogy for the civil rights giant in which he was joined by two other past presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
At the funeral on the grounds of the Ebenezer Baptist Church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, Obama invoked the names of Southern segregationists of the 1960s to make a point about how little has changed when it comes to protesters standing up against government oppression to try to right what they perceive as injustices.
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the backs of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” he said.
The best way to honor Lewis, who served in Congress for four decades after his work in the civil rights movement, is to continue the struggle for voting rights, Obama said.
Lewis, whomObama hailed as “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance,”was a leader in the nonviolent demonstrations that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Obama said voting should be made easier to former prison inmates who earned their place back in society, that early voting should be expanded, and that Election Day should be a national holiday.
“Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting,” said Obama in a not-so-veiled swipe at Republicans. He cited the closing of voting locations and stricter identification card requirements that target minorities and students.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
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Clinton, speaking slowly in a soft voice, earlier hailed the late congressman for adhering to his belief in peaceful demonstration even when it meant being beaten by police or state troopers in the 1960s. He noted the devotion to what Lewis called “good trouble” –becoming an irritant to the status quo to bring about change.
“He got in a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget he developed an absolute uncanny ability to heal troubled waters,” Clinton said. “He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist.”
Lending a bipartisan air to the funeral,Bush called Lewis “an American saint, a believer willing to give up everything.”
Bush noted that he and Lewis had had political disagreements – Bush being a Republican and Lewis a Democrat – but that it was an inevitable result of democracy in action. He said he admired Lewis for his faith and pursuit of a better world.
“We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis and his abiding faith in the power of God, the power of democracy and the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground,” Bush said.
It was a remarkable testament to Lewis’ influence to have had his funeral attended by three former presidents. The fourth, America’s oldest living former president, Jimmy Carter, 95, sent a statement that was read at the service. President Donald Trump, who feuded politically with Lewis, didn’t attend.
Lewis died July 17 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
Not to be overshadowed, other speakers talked of Lewis’ life from its many facets.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosispoke to Lewis’ contributions in Congress, where his body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol before being flown to Atlanta.
“There was this double rainbow over the casket,” she said. “He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven, I’m home in heaven.’ We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them.”
Bernice King, a minister, attorney and youngest child of King and Coretta Scott King, echoed the “good trouble” theme Lewis embraced in a prayer to start the service, urging the struggle for voting rights and over white supremacy “until this nation truly becomes a compassionate nation.” Lewis, she said, “joins the great cloud of freedom fighters.”
Lewis was also honored by James Lawson, a fellow civil rights leader, as one who transcended politics to focus on greater truths. Lewis practiced “the politics of the Declaration of Independence, the politics of the preamble of the Constitution.”
Outside Ebenezer Baptist Church, hundreds filled the sidewalks and front yard, many holding signs and wearing T-shirts with images of Lewis or his motto “Good Trouble.”
Some stood behind the orange police barricades near the entrance of the church hoping to catch a glimpse of dignitaries walking in.
The streets were lined with tents occupied by vendors selling Lewis paraphernalia and Black Lives Matter shirts.
Pamela Burrell said Lewis was likely one of the most influential civil rights leaders in history next to King.
“Today is a special day, and it should be John Lewis Day everywhere in America today, especially Atlanta,” said Burrell, 57, of Atlanta. “And all that we gave to him this week, we actually owe him more than that.”
Isaac Ferguson Dillard and Joseph Earls of Atlanta led the crowd in a song they wrote to honor the congressman’s “good trouble” philosophy. Mourners also sang gospel songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”
Dillard said Lewis inspired him to stand up for justice and motivate today’s young people to do the same.
“As John Lewis said, when you see something is wrong, say something, and when you see something is wrong, do something,” Dillard said. “So it’s about putting your words into action… and by doing that you’re getting into good trouble.”
When the funeral began, the crowd moved in front of thebillboard-size video screen displaying a livestream of the service. They clapped and shouted when leaders such as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Clinton appeared.
Norris Kenney Allen, 78, was among the people seated in lawn chairs directly in front of the screen before the funeral started.
Allen said it was “extraordinary” that Obama, Clinton and Bush were all there.
“It’s very rare that you find three of the presidents at a place at the same time,” said Allen, who marched with Lewis in Selma and was inspired by his nonviolent protests. “It’s so important to be here.”
It was Obama’s eulogy that resonated the most outside the church, with many cheering and clapping throughout.
Joette Murphy said Obama motivated her to continue Lewis’ work.
“It was very encouraging, motivational,” said Murphy, 60. “The struggle continues, and we must continue to fight on.”
Alvin Farmer, an Air Force veteran, said Obama’s speech was “exceptional” and gave him hope.
“He speaks for all the people,” said Farmer, 65. “Not only Blacks, whites but all people all over the world. We as a people got to fight now that John Lewis is gone.”
The service came as The New York Times published a posthumous op-ed Thursday morning written by Lewis, who had represented the Atlanta area since 1986.
The civil rights icon wrote the essay shortly before his death, requesting it be published on the day of his funeral, which capped six days of memorial events across five cities.
Lewis was interred at South View Cemetery following the funeral.